By Brendan Smith, November 2020
Finding that photograph between the pages of an old paperback is what started it. I picked up a bundle of old dusty books at an auction recently and as I browsed through them in my spare time I was surprised to come across an old photograph folded up between the pages of one of them. It was a faded black and white picture, cut out from a newspaper, of two young lads of about twelve years of age, with freckled faces and tousled long hair and looking the picture of happiness on what appeared to be a glorious sunny day. The boys arms were slung around the shoulders of two shaggy looking donkeys and both of the lads proudly held to their chests a small trophy in their free hand. The caption underneath the picture gave their names and indicated that the two boys had been victorious in the donkey derby at their local sports day having been placed first and second. I suspect that the photograph was cut out and stashed away by a proud mother but was subsequently forgotten about. I could see the joy and excitement in the young lad’s eyes and I could understand it as I too was a regular participant in the donkey derby at our local sports. As I gazed at the picture in front of me my mind drifted back in time almost fifty years to those carefree days.
We always woke up with a great sense of excitement and anticipation on the day of the Ballinacree Parish Sports which was held in the local football field. It was usually on a Sunday afternoon in August and we couldn’t wait for Mass and the dinner to be over and done with before we were out the door and on our way. We had an old shilling in our pocket- it was six pence to get in and this left six pence for a soft drink and maybe a few penny bars. All priced in old money of course! All the events were free to enter. We thought we were rich.
The atmosphere as you entered the field would hit you, the smell of freshly cut grass, the bunting fluttering in the summer breeze and the excited chattering of the children as they queued up to get their ice pops and mineral drinks along the side of the field or over the road in Lord’s shop. Men would be chatting in groups in their shirt sleeves and braces while the women would be all dolled up in their colourful summer dresses.
There would be all sorts of fun events to look forward to many of which you won’t see nowadays. However one of the highlights of the day and the one that the picture brought back into my memory is the Donkey Derby- you mightn’t think that six or seven donkeys, or asses if you prefer, running against each other around a football field could be much fun- but you’d be wrong.
It’s not like a horse race where you have to have declared runners and entry forms and handicaps and all that sort of thing- this was a much more informal type of event- the procedure it was straightforward, you simply turned up on the day with your ass- you being the intended jockey of course. You didn’t have to own the beast; you could beg, borrow or, if circumstances required it, steal it from its field- well on a temporary basis anyway. Indeed some of our local donkey owners had an entry in the big race unbeknownst to them on a regular basis. All it took was a bit of advance planning where you and your friends would work out a strategy as to how you would get your preferred mount to the starting line.
Anyway you arrived at the sports field leading your intended mount with a bit of rope around its neck carefully tied so as not to choke the poor animal. You didn’t have a saddle so it was a bareback job, but that added to the fun. You had to find a convenient spot to tie up the ass to await the big race, in the meantime, after giving the animal a porringer full of water so that he wouldn’t be thirsty you might take part in a few of the other events but you kept one eye out all the time to make sure that your mount didn’t disappear on you- or be claimed by some other unscrupulous jockey.
By way of explanation and as I have already alluded to, the donkey derby is an entirely different affair to a horse race. Horses are herd animals and endeavour to push forward and lead the field at every opportunity- our humble donkey does not have any such lofty aspirations- it wants nothing more than to live a life of ease, free of stress and strain. Therefore it needs to be encouraged—cajoled or forced by whatever inducements possible to move- walk or maybe trot. Cantering or galloping would be out of the question, of course.
There were loads of distraction to the poor donkey – the excited buzz from the crowd, the encouraging shouts of the onlookers – or maybe the proximity of members of the opposite sex which can cause the donkey to get excited and to rear up and maybe toss the jockey on to the ground. Of course some of them were, by nature, stubborn or thick, as we would call them, and it was at times necessary to resort to a bit of violence if that’s what it took. That was before the days of the ISPCA- inspectors.
Eventually we all were underway- coaxing and slapping the poor animals to get up a head of steam but often to no avail. You would hear the encouraging shouts of the onlookers and excitement would reach a fever pitch as progress was made around the field- well by some anyway, others would inevitable come to a grinding halt – usually accompanied by a chorus of choice language from the jockey and others in support. Sooner or later a jockey would take a tumble and end up on the grass but such was their enthusiasm that they quickly remounted and were back on board without too much time lost.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, a winner would eventually manage to complete the course and to pass through the tape designating the finish line which was usually surrounded by cheering fans. There would be an occasional dispute over the result and some loud objection might be raised. However all was invariably sorted- not always to everyone’s satisfaction. But there was always next year.
After it was over, the audience then would go back to watching other events like tug-o-war or three legged races or the pillow fighting, but I doubt if there was anything like the excitement as there was for the donkey derby. As for the asses I am sure they enjoyed their little bit of annual social interaction- though I am not too sure about the running around the field bit- perhaps some of them went home thinking- I’ll have to do a bit of training for that next year.
To tell the truth I never did enter the winner’s enclosure, or get any sort of a prize, but I do recall taking several falls without any adverse effects on me that I am aware off. In horseracing circles falling off your horse is looked upon with disdain, the “preferred” option if you are going to have a fall is to “go down with your ship”. I don’t ever remember any donkeys ever falling but certainly the rider falling off was common place and a source of much fun and laughter all around. They say that the reason some of these events are not allowed anymore is for health and safety reasons. But on reflection it’s not really the health and safety aspect that has caused donkey derbies to cease – the reality is that we just don’t have the donkeys around anymore – they have been replaced by modern technology in the form of tractors and cars. Any donkeys that are kept nowadays are really just kept as a hobby or for show. But that’s progress and we all move on and are left with our memories – memories of the great fun we had and the fantastic enjoyment- I doubt if there was such crack at a race in Cheltenham – and all right here on our own doorsteps.
My mind slowly came back into the present and to the photograph in front of me and it occurred to me how easy it was to drift back in mind and recollect all the feelings and details of those happy times but at the same time struggle to recall what happened last week or last month. I realise that they were simpler times then and that nowadays young people have much more sophisticated things to be doing than racing around a field on the back of a donkey!